We’re going to let you in on a secret: The ability to recover quickly from tough workouts is what sets the most successful athletes apart. If you skimp on recovery, either due to poor nutrition, too little sleep, or an overly stressful lifestyle, your body simply won’t adapt as it should.
Why is this?
It all comes down to cortisol. Known as a stress hormone that is released from the adrenal glands, cortisol breaks down fat, protein (lean tissue), and stored carbohydrates to provide energy during stressful times. Intense exercise is a major physical stressor that elevates cortisol. When combined with the pressure of competing, or the chronic stress of every day life, it’s easy for cortisol to get out of balance.
When cortisol levels remain unnecessarily high they cause several negative effects including the following:
A loss of muscle mass
Inability to sleep
Increased fat gain around the abdominal area
Anxiety and a racing mind
Over the long-term, high cortisol causes insulin resistance, damages blood vessels, and causes inflammation—a combination that increases disease risk.
With all this bad news, you might think you need to do everything you can to lower cortisol. However, cortisol is a hormone that needs to be balanced. In the morning when you wake up it should be elevated to help you get out of bed and then it should curve downward over the course of the day so that you can rest well at night. Additionally, during exercise or anytime you need to exert an intense physical or mental effort, you want your adrenals to be responsive.
One study of young men involved in an intense weight training program found that strength and muscle gains from training were associated with cortisol release. Greater workout cortisol may be indicative of higher quality training and a greater anabolic response. The take away is to not worry about eliciting a large cortisol release during training, but to take action to clear cortisol during the recovery period. What follows are nutrition strategies that have been shown to balance cortisol in response to serious mental and physical stress:
#1: Drink up
Water is a much underrated stress reducer. Dehydration will significantly elevate cortisol and most people are chronically dehydrated. Shoot for 0.6 to 0.7 ounces of water per pound of body weight a day, which calculates to 120 to 140 ounces for a 200 lb man or 72 to 84 ounces for a 120 lb woman.
#2: Take Vitamin C
High-dose vitamin C can help you recover by accelerating the body’s ability to metabolize cortisol.
#3: Take Magnesium
Known as the anti-stress mineral, magnesium is necessary for the body to metabolize cortisol once it is elevated.
#4: Get Extra B Vitamins
Necessary for the release of the calming neurotransmitter GABA, the B vitamins are often depleted in people with elevated cortisol. B6, B12, B9 (folate), and B5 are especially important for cortisol clearance.
#5: Take Taurine
Another nutrient that improves GABA release, taurine calms the central nervous system, accelerating recovery of strength after heavy training.
#6: Eat Healthy Carbs
Carbohydrate foods elevate insulin, a cortisol antagonist. Anytime insulin goes up, cortisol goes down. Additionally, carbs provide the building blocks for the body to restore glycogen, which is important for muscle recovery.
Final Words: Any good recovery requires a holistic approach. In addition to focusing on post-workout nutrition, be sure to incorporate the following elements:
A nutrient-dense, healthy diet
Prioritize restful sleep
Engage in rejuvenating activities like meditation or yoga, and
Enjoy down time with family and friends.
Stachowicz, M., Lebiedzinska, A. The effect of diet components on the level of cortisol. European Food research and Technology. 2016. 242:2001–2009.